It had been a few years since I had last watched a Degrassi episode, but as soon as Degrassi: Next Class was available on Netflix, I found myself binge-ing all 10 episodes. Though I initially pressed play for the nostalgia, I quickly surprised myself by becoming completely re-addicted to the series.
Unlike other teen soaps, which more often than not feature 20- and 30-somethings playing the high school leads, Degrassi is unabashedly teenage. The actors are relatively the same age as their characters and their interests are delightfully mundane. There are no vampires, no omniscient blogger tracking their lives, no rapid-fire banter referencing obscure pop culture figures. The students of Degrassi have the same vocabularies and problems of any average teenager. While this might sound like it would make for less than riveting television, Degrassi's commitment to teenage authenticity is exactly what has made it a multigenerational institution for nearly 40 years.
For those of you who didn't grow up on the Canadian soap, here's a brief history. The franchise launched as a series of four annual after-school specials in 1979 called The Kids of Degrassi Street. It began putting out weekly episodes in 1982, with 26 episodes being released over the next four years. Creator Linda Schuyler, a former junior high teacher, then decided to revamp the drama and Degrassi Junior High was born. The series premiered in 1987 and ran until 1989. Degrassi High then debuted, following the same characters from Junior High through their high school years until it ended in 1991. It was then off the air for 10 years until Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered in 2001. This is the Degrassi I grew up on and, more importantly, the one that gave us Drake. Next Generation ran until it was canceled in 2015. Fortunately, Netflix picked it up and gave it a fancy new name: Degrassi: Next Class, which premiered in January.
Through five iterations and four decades, the main tenants of Degrassi have remained relatively the same. Even the extremely millennial-focused Next Class bears the marks of the franchise's after-school roots. At first glance, each character appears to be a typical teen archetype - the charismatic bad boy, the sensitive musician, the boy-crazy cheerleader - but as the series goes on, these identities become more muddled, with each student struggling to find their place and define their own identity.
Degrassi's in-depth examination of the teenage experience is greatly benefited by the show's dedication to diversity. It was one of the first series to include a transgender lead character, has featured many gay and bisexual characters, and this year, it introduced Goldi (Soma Bhatia), the first character who wears a hijab. But Degrassi never uses Goldi's hijab or religion as a mere plot device. Instead, Goldi is defined by her passionate activism and work with Degrassi's Feminist Club.
That's not to say that the series ignores the Islamaphobia so many Muslims are subjected to. After the Feminist Club leads a protest against the Gaming Club, one of the gamers, Hunter (Spencer MacPherson), lashes out at Goldi, saying her hijab is triggering because of its affiliation with suicide bombers.
Subtle, Degrassi is not.
The series walks a fine line between beating you over the head with issues and providing a relatable representation of what teens are dealing with. In the Degrassi fandom, these more shocking story lines are known as "It Goes There" moments: the school shooting that paralyzed Jimmy (Drake), Cam's (Dylan Everett) suicide, Emma's (Miriam McDonald) gonorrhea, Paige's (Lauren Collins) rape, and - maybe most famously - Manny's (Cassie Steele) abortion.
In 2004, The Next Generation aired a two-part episode in which the 14-year-old Manny discovers she's pregnant and decides to have an abortion against the father Craig's (Jake Epstein) wishes. The episode was so controversial, it wasn't shown in the United States until two years later as part of a cast-selected marathon. But this wasn't the first time Degrassi tackled the taboo subject of teenage abortion and it likely won't be the last. Fifteen years prior, Degrassi High's second episode featured Erica (Angela Deisach) having to wade through a crowd of pro-life protestors to get an abortion at her local clinic.
Though Degrassi has been on nearly 40 years, the series will never run out of story lines, as evidenced here. Because while the characters in each season might be cycling through the same basic issues - abortion, pregnancy, self-harm, drug use, body issues - everyone handles them in a different way. Not all characters who got pregnant on Degrassi decided to have an abortion. J.T. (Ryan Cooley) and Liberty (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer), and Jenna (Jessica Tyler) and K.C. (Sam Earle) resolved that adoption was the best option for them. Mia (Nina Dobrev) chose to become a single mother at 13 and was never shown to regret her choice. By coming back to the same topics again and again, Degrassi isn't becoming stale or lazy. It's normalizing the wide range of experiences teenagers go through.
Most critically, none of these moments are presented as shock for shock's sake. One of the joys of watching teen shows is that the stakes are incredibly high while still being completely relatable. On Scandal, it takes a kidnapping, presidential rigging or global crisis to raise the stakes to a Code Red moment. But in the world of Degrassi, every school dance is the most important night of your life, every date decides your entire future. Sometimes the seriousness with which the characters on Degrassi approach these often banal events seems laughable, but that's the point. When I watch Emma losing her mind about her first date with Sean (Daniel Clark), during which a bird poops on her, I don't judge her for it. I half-groan, remembering my own teenage anxiety, and then sit back and gleefully enjoy the spectator sport that is teenage drama.
Though there are times when Degrassi is almost painfully sincere, it isn't afraid to have a little fun with itself. No Next Generation fan could forget the three-episode arc in which Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes go to Degrassi to film Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh!. Next Class even had a goofy celebrity cameo of its own, when Zoe (Ana Golja) decides to track down her father, whose identity she doesn't know. After some terrible investigating, Zoe comes to the conclusion that her father is David Sutcliffe, aka Christopher on Gilmore Girls, because her mother was an extra on the soon-to-be-revived series.
Degrassi knows these story lines are silly, but it embraces them with as much gusto as it embraces the story lines about female masturbation and student-teacher affairs. That's because in the pop culture sphere, Degrassi's range goes unrivaled. Want to watch Drake deal with erectile dysfunction? There's a Degrassi for that. Want to watch some of the most nuanced explorations of sexual assault on television? There's a Degrassi for that. Want to see the school-wide scandal that erupts when Manny Santos wears a visible thong? There's a Degrassi for that!
No matter what you're looking for, I bet there's a Degrassi episode that fits the bill. The series is simultaneously timeless and specific to the current teenage generation. It's ironic and sincere. It's everything one could ask for in a teen soap, which is exactly why I don't care that I'm far beyond Degrassi's target demo (those who aren't old enough to drink, let alone rent a car). Until Degrassi Community School shutters its doors for good, I will be right here, watching each episode and rocking out to Downtown Sasquatch.